How to Smoke Pork Ribs

Great barbecue ribs are slow smoked to perfection

Smoked barbecue ribs
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Pork ribs have a long tradition in the old world of barbecue, ranking up there with brisket and pulled pork in competitions as a true art form. Successful pork ribs are tender and flavorful with a nice smoky taste. To achieve this, they need to be cooked low and slow with a good dose of smoke. This means you need a smoker, your choice of wood, a spice rub, and a lot of time and patience. (If you don't have a smoker, you can use a kettle charcoal grill.) A full rack of ribs can be smoked in about 4 hours, but if you have the time, try and go the distance—the longer you smoke, the more flavor it will produce.

Prepping the Pork

The first step in making pork ribs is to ready the rack. Let the ribs come up to room temperature, rinse off in cold water, and remove the membrane from the back. Although some cooks believe you don't have to remove the membrane, others feel that it is a must. The membrane blocks the uptake of smoke and creates a barrier to your seasonings.

To remove the membrane, lay the ribs on a flat surface meat-side down. Take a sharp knife and begin peeling the membrane from one corner near the bone. In most cases, a lobster fork works well for this job. Once you have a good piece peeled back, grasp it with a paper towel to establish a firm grip and begin pulling. If the membrane is intact, it shouldn't be too much trouble to remove. With the membrane removed, rinse off the ribs again and pat dry with paper towels.

Seasoning the Ribs

One trick used by several barbecue competitors is to coat the ribs with prepared yellow mustard; it seals the seasonings in place and provides a nice crust over the surface of the ribs. There is no need to use a gourmet or expensive product since the smoking process will remove the mustard flavor.

If you prefer to rub your spice mixture directly into the pork ribs, then you can place it on the ribs first, and then carefully apply the mustard. Alternatively, you can sprinkle the rub over the mustard or use a mustard-based rub. It's really a matter of preference.

Setting Up the Smoker

When choosing the type of wood to put in the smoker's firebox, consider a blend of oak, hickory, and a little mesquite. With a little experimentation, however, you can come up with the kind of smoke you prefer. Light the firebox and let the smoker heat up. A good smoking temperature is around 225 F/110 C. You can go lower if you plan on doing a long smoke, but don't go any higher.

Cooking and Serving the Rack

Once the pork ribs are seasoned and the smoker is ready, then you are ready to begin smoking the ribs. Place the ribs in the smoker and let them go. There is nothing for you to do for the next several hours except making sure the temperature of the smoker is maintained.

The ribs should be cooked through and tender after 4 hours, but let them cook longer if you can. The longer you smoke at a low temperature the more tender and flavorful the ribs will be. Just remember that you need to hit an internal temperature of 165 F/75 C before the ribs can be served. It is best to use a meat thermometer.

To serve, I cut the ribs individually. Many barbecue aficionados don't see a reason for a finishing sauce, but if you are a big fan of sauces and can't imagine serving ribs without one, then consider using a mild recipe with a thin consistency that won't overpower the ribs.